A former Manitoba rancher has been ordered to jail for 45 days in connection with a cattle-starvation case linked to a bitter dispute over his late mother’s estate.
Officials with the Winnipeg Humane Society say it’s the first time in nearly 20 years someone guilty of animal abuse has earned jail time. And the tough sentence could serve as a template in upcoming cruelty cases.
Thomas Jeffrey (Jeff) McLean will begin serving his intermittent jail sentence on Feb. 14, provincial court Judge Mary Kate Harvie ruled.
"It’s disturbing to think of the number of animals that were the subject of neglect and suffering," Harvie said.
"While at times the phrase ‘herd of cattle’ refers to a single entity, it’s important to remember that each animal in the herd that succumbed to starvation or had to be euthanized… would have suffered enormously."
Harvie also banned McLean from ever owning livestock again in his lifetime — another first under the province’s overhauled Animal Care Act, said the Humane Society’s Bill McDonald.
McLean, 49, previously pleaded guilty to several Animal Care Act charges stemming from the discovery of 67 dead cattle and 52 near death due to hunger on the family homestead in the RM of Louise on May 10, 2011.
A deal was reached between Crown prosecutors and McLean’s lawyer where he’d plead guilty and pay substantial fines in exchange for the prospect of jail being taken off the table. Harvie refused to sanction that arrangement given the facts of the case.
McLean’s herd began to starve months before the May 2011 discovery of the animals. A routine inspection of his operation in 2009-2010 showed everything at the farm was in good order.
The backdrop to the case was a dispute between McLean and his brother over their late mother’s estate. Months before the cattle began to deteriorate, the brother won a civil-court judgment removing McLean as co-executor.
A family court judge ultimately found McLean responsible for the demise of several animals and ordered him to pay $22,500 for the estate’s losses.
The Crown initially signalled it saw McLean’s case as one where the cattle were willfully starved in an effort to devalue the estate.
McLean’s lawyer denied this, instead saying he was someone who got in over his head and couldn’t afford to feed the animals after he lost access a large amount of farmland in the estate battle.
Harvie elected to not judge the case on this issue. She noted McLean’s guilty pleas showed his acknowledgement he didn’t properly care for the herd. Nor did he reach out for government assistance for farmers in need.
"He’s not someone who dabbled in cattle farming and got in over his head," she said. "He’s a lifetime and experienced cattle farmer. As such he knew he had other options … it really represents a betrayal of a lifetime of farming experience," said Harvie.
The Humane Society’s McDonald said McLean’s case is the first time anyone has been jailed for animal cruelty since the mid-1990s, when Walter Hiebert’s Steinbach-area puppy mill was raided. That was among the worst cruelty cases in recent memory.
McDonald said it’s encouraging to see a judge use the full power of the law, including fines and a lifetime ban on owning livestock, to punish animal abusers.
"We were pleased because this is finally a judge who is putting teeth in the Animal Care Act," he said. "The act is starting to work."
McDonald hopes the McLean case foreshadows a similarly tough sentence later this week for Peter and Judith Chernecki. The Gull Lake couple faces sentencing Thursday after pleading guilty to a number of animal cruelty charges. In 2011, animal welfare officials seized 64 dogs from their feces-filled Gull Lake house. Half the dogs had to be put down.
— with files from Mary Agnes Welch